Judge rejects Walmart’s request for new trial after firing of employee with Down syndrome

Marlo Spaeth (left) was fired from Walmart in July 2015, after working there for nearly 16 years. Her sister, Amy Jo Stevenson, has been in a legal battle with the retail giant since then. She filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Amy Jo Stevenson

A federal judge has rejected Walmart’s request for a new trial after a jury found the retailer discriminated against a longtime employee with Down syndrome by refusing to adjust her schedule and firing her.

In a court filing on Monday, the judge stood by the July 2021 ruling. A jury found that Walmart violated the law by terminating Marlo Spaeth, an employee who folded towels, tidied aisles and helped customers for nearly 16 years in a Walmart Supercenter in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

It ordered Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, to pay more than $125 million in damages — one of the highest ever for a single victim won by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The federal agency filed the disability discrimination suit on Spaeth’s behalf.

Damages were reduced by the judge to $300,000, the maximum allowed under the law.

The judge also ordered Walmart earlier this year to give Spaeth more than $50,000 in back pay and immediately rehire her, if she is interested in the job.

The judge’s denial is the latest in a seven-year battle between Spaeth’s family and Walmart.

“The court has concluded that a reasonable jury could find that Walmart was aware that Spaeth needed an accommodation because of her disability,” Judge William Griesbach wrote in the Monday court filing. “The jury was well situated to answer that factual question, and this court will not disturb that conclusion.”

Spaeth’s sister, Amy Jo Stevenson told CNBC on Wednesday that the judge’s ruling is a relief. Yet she said she is still looking for closure.

Spaeth’s firing permanently shook up their lives and took away her sister’s sense of purpose, Stevenson said. Spaeth has also struggled with depression, and despite the historic jury award, “still hasn’t seen a penny,” Stevenson added.

The dispute began when the retailer adopted a computerized scheduling system and changed Spaeth’s longstanding work shift. Spaeth could not adjust to the schedule because of her disability, Stevenson told the jury. The change in hours kept Spaeth from taking the same bus and getting home in time for dinner. Instead of adjusting Spaeth’s shift to her old hours, Walmart fired her in July 2015.

Walmart contested the jury’s verdict and asked the judge to toss the damages. Among its arguments, Walmart said the federal agency did not prove the retailer knew Spaeth’s scheduling challenges were related to her Down syndrome.

Griesbach poked holes in that, saying the trial included plenty of evidence that “Spaeth’s limitations and need for an accommodation were obvious.” Some of that evidence came from Walmart’s own managers, who testified that Spaeth needed extra help when the company changed her work routine.

Walmart could appeal the case. Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove said the company is “reviewing the opinion and considering our options.”

Stevenson said she is eager to receive the check, so she knows the years-long court battle is behind them. She plans to put it toward experiences that enrich her sister’s life — such as concert tickets, a new bowling ball or a trip to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Since the firing, music has been one of Spaeth’s few joys, she said.

Stevenson said it is exhausting to see Walmart keep fighting the jury’s verdict.

“It blows my mind that they have yet to own up to anything,” she said. “I don’t expect them ever to at this point.”

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